The game trailer opens to the sound of birds chirping as a red-banded warrior takes a step backward in a polygonal forest. Tall grass flattens beneath his bare feet as three rock monsters approach our hero. Moments later, our war-painted protagonist is seen running through a busy adobe marketplace. Later still, he navigates a rocky canyon, transforming into a bird as he glides across a river bed.
These first images of “Mulaka” stood out among the crowd of indie titles last summer during Nintendo’s Switch Nindies Showcase, debuting nearly two months after their latest console released. Influenced by tales from an indigenous group in northern Mexico, “Mulaka” would go on to join “The Mooseman” in a growing list of indie games released this year to be heavily influenced by international indigenous folktales.
‘Zelda, But Placed in Chihuahua’
“When we were starting out [in 2011], we started doing games for companies and museums – just really anybody who would pay us to make games,” Edgar Serrano, Lienzo studio director and head of research for “Mulaka,” told Variety. “That, in northern Mexico, is hard to get. There’s still like a taboo around video games – they struggle to see it as a viable business.”
After a couple years chasing potential clients for work, Serrano said he wanted to create and develop a project of their own.
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“We wanted to see how it would be viable to get in the industry with your own IP,” he said. “One of the organizations that work with cultural stuff here in Mexico, we started talking to one of those guys and he told us if we had an idea for something cultural, maybe we could lock in some funds to make that happen.”
Serrano said he channeled his eight years of experience as a Boy Scout, suggesting an adventure game set within the Tarahumara culture – a nearby indigenous community that lived remotely away from the city.
“I told [a coworker] ‘What if we do a Zelda but placed in Chihuahua,” he said. “That was the seed that planted the idea into all of us. We started playing around with the idea about what we could do, what we could add, what it could be.”
Stories Up North
“The Mooseman” began as a small side project in 2015 for Vladimir Beletsky, as a way for the young programmer to take a breather from his full-time job at a major Russian game studio.
“I decided I would take a vacation and make a small game for myself, just for fun,” he said. “I felt the need to make some kind of fun game.”
Beletsky began first by drawing a logo: a black and white sketch of three men, each standing shoulder-to-shoulder as creatures surround them, the words “THE MOOSEMAN” scrawled alongside their torsos. Born and raised in the Russian city of Perm, Beletsky’s rough drawing was heavily influenced by Permian Animal-style artifacts, a design decision that “was an obvious choice.” He went on to create a runner-based prototype within one week, where players navigated a shaman through a Russian folklore-inspired black and white backdrop. The game, with an accompanying soundtrack provided by his friend and collaborator Mikhail Shvachko, was then submitted to an unofficial online game jam organized by a forum of “Warcraft III” modders.
“When the contest came to an end, we were the lucky winners of a category for ‘unique idea,’” he said. “We got a warm welcome from the players and we thought it’d be a good idea to continue developing the game.”
As production started on “Mulaka,” the artists and developers at the studio began what would be a two-year communication process with members of the Tarahumara community. Early efforts were difficult, said lead writer Guillermo Vizcaino, with initial concerns about the travel safety of their staff.
“Back then, it was harder to get to the community because there was a lot of violence, like drug-dealing violence going on in the state and there were a lot of warnings too about going into the Sierra, the mountain-range because you heard stories about people getting kidnapped or straight-up shot,” Vizcaino said.
“We started working with some NGOs, non-governmental organizations that did stuff for the Tarahumara… the first trips were done with them, in their trucks and they took us into their communities because the drug dealers don’t really mess with them because they know they’re doing good for their community.”
The Tarahumara do not have a council or group of representatives, Serrano said, and as such, the developers spoke to as many people within the community as they could. Early interactions were a learning process for both sides: as developers learned more about the community, the developers tried to explain to the Tarahumara about advancements within the gaming world.
“For them, video games is literally the arcade in the mom and pop shop in town where they go to get their tortillas,” Vizcaino said. “The arcade right there with ‘King of Fighters’ is their reach of the industry so it was first trying to explain what the industry was back then, what a digital game was, the reach that it would have and then what we would wanted to make with it.”
First reactions to the game idea were met well; Marcelina Mustillos, the cultural governess of one of the biggest Tarahumara communities in the state, was one of the first to tell the developers she approved of their work.
“She was all for it because she does have that vision of ‘Whatever you can make to help us not be forgotten, then that’s good,’” Serrano said. “She pointed us towards other respected members of the community to get further blessings.”
Learning the Legends
Gameplay elements and narratives for “Mulaka” and “The Mooseman” grew and developed as each developer’s knowledge of their subject grew.
“On the first prototype of “Mulaka,” Mulaka fought a bear in a cave and that was a big red light because, as we now know, the bear is a big demigod for them so they would never purposely harm a bear,” Serrano said. “That’s when we stopped and said ‘You know what, we really need to talk more to these people,’ so that was basically the process.”
As Mulaka, players control a powerful Sukurúame sorcerer tasked with convincing five demigods to intervene in the impending destruction of the Earth. In addition to their regular trips to the Tarahumara community, the Lienzo developers began working alongside anthropologist Enrique Servin to help safely gamify elements of their story.
“In Mulaka, most of what you’ll find is a lot of those myths and legends taken as is and maintained as is,” Vizcaino said. “There’s a very serious loss of culture going because of the whole globalization process and a younger generation of Tarahumara, they don’t really know any of those legends or any of those myths so we wanted to keep those as they were told in the original folklore.”
One year into “The Mooseman’s” development, Beletsky said he contacted the Perm Historical Museum and began working with the head of the museum’s archeology division on his game’s story.
“When I came to him, the story wasn’t finished, it was sketched – so this guy walks from the Lower World to the Upper World, why he’s going there, I didn’t know,” Beletsky said.
In time, “The Mooseman’s” story came into place. The roots of the main storyline come from Saamic stories, as well as Komi-Permian mythology. Players play as the titular Mooseman, a shaman-like protagonist who travels across the Lower World, the Middle World, and the Upper World. Core gameplay mechanics include interacting between a “real” and “spiritual” realm to solve puzzles and utilizing heat to fend off enemies. Collectible myths and plaques are hidden throughout each level, with each artifact given a historical reference for gamers curious to learn more.
The game’s soundtrack includes Komi-Permian songs and melodies contributed to the developer by the Perm College of Arts and Culture.
Additionally, “The Mooseman” is fully translated and playable in Komi-Permian and includes narration in Komi-Permian.
“This really gave the game some authenticity, I think,” Beletsky said.
Although Beletsky said “The Mooseman” includes no particular message for players, he said he hopes the game encourages Russian gamers to consider stories told outside of mainstream narratives.
“You should pay attention to local culture because a lot of products in Russia are based on Western culture like fantasy and comic book stuff,” he said. “We wanted to make something that was related to local roots that could be fun as well. It could be interesting not only to Komi-Permian but even to the west.”
Vizcaino said he hopes “Mulaka” can connect with a wide audience inside and out of Mexico, including a younger and more globalized generation of Tarahumara.
“We know younger generations are playing video games and because we know video games are the best medium for storytelling, if some of those kids – Tarahumara younglings – end up finding our game and end up finding something that they didn’t know about their past and end up reigniting their love for their own culture, then that’s a successful mission on our end,” Vizcaino said.
“We want to make games that are ours, we want to make games that have an impact – what better way than to start something that’s local, something that’s dear to us and something that speaks to the Mexican folklore and also stays away from the clichés. We don’t want to do piñatas, and Dia de Muertos and Cinco de Mayo and all of that, and this was the perfect opportunity to do something like that.”